Globally, the plant-based food market is expected to reach $77.bn by 2025. By 2030, Statista forecasts the market will have doubled.
According to taste and nutrition-focused Kerry Group, however, growth in plant-based won’t be achieved by brands resting on their laurels. Whereas once shoppers may have been willing to compromise in either taste, texture, or nutrition, this is no longer the case.
The evolution of plant-based
The plant-based category hasn’t always had to meet such high expectations, however.
Around 15-20 years ago, the plant-based market was ‘niche’, according to Ian Carroll, Senior Strategic Marketing Manager for Plant-Based Foods at Kerry.
“This was the original vegetarian and vegan movement…the options weren’t really there on the market, it was really early-stage development,” he told press during a recent event at Kerry’s Global Technology and Innovation Centre in Naas, Ireland.
“The consumer was driven by ethical concerns, and it was a very low percentage of the total consumer base.”
If this period represents ‘Plant-based 1.0’, then ‘Plant-based 2.0’ kicked off around five or six years ago. At that time, there was an ‘explosion’ of flexitarianism or reductionism – whereby consumers began to actively seek ways to reduce their intake of meat and dairy products.
“They are doing so for one of three reasons: for health, sustainability, or animal welfare.”
But there is a ‘very important’ distinction between a flexitarian and a vegan/vegetarian. The former has animal-based products as its benchmark when it comes to taste and eating experience. “So their benchmark is a lot higher.”
Today, the market has evolved into its next iteration: ‘Plant-based 3.0’.
Kerry has observed that what the consumer needs from the category is evolving ahead of what producers are able to deliver. “This is particularly the case when it comes to taste, texture, and nutritional profile of the product,” said Carroll.
While plant-based is becoming mainstream, as are the needs of the consumer, shoppers’ expectations have changed. “Going back 15-20 years ago, making a plant-based choice meant there was almost an expectation you would compromise on product quality or taste,” he continued.
“Now that compromise is not accepted by consumers. They want to see good taste, they want to see good nutritional content, they want to see texture, they want to see sustainability.
“The level of need within the market has gone up significantly.”
The only way producers are going to win in the Plant-based 3.0 category is by innovating and delivering against consumer expectations, believes Kerry.
The Ireland-headquartered ingredients major has pinpointed insights that can be leveraged to ‘drive growth’ for plant-based manufacturers.
The first is ‘nutrition seeking’. “Consumers are looking for quality nutrition in plant-based products,” explained Carroll.
Health is the key reason consumers switch to plant-based, but now they’re questioning whether eating a plant-based product will deliver on the nutrients, minerals and proteins they would have received from an animal-based product.
“As an industry, we need to deliver reassurance to the consumer that yes, you can have a nutritionally-optimised diet with plant-based ingredients.”
Clean label scepticism
Consumer perception of the ‘healthiness’ of plant-based is also changing. Whereas once the plant-based category benefited from somewhat of a ‘health halo’, today’s consumer is more sceptical.
Turning over to the back-of-pack, shoppers are looking for e-numbers and clean ingredients, suggested Carroll.
Further, consumers are less likely to understand the processing mechanics of plant-based products. “If they see a piece of meat, generally speaking they know how it got into the supermarket.
“But if it’s a plant-based product, [they don’t understand] the processing that goes into making that product.”
Kerry believes the response from plant-based manufacturers should be to use ‘natural’ ingredients. This means no unrecognisable, unpronounceable ingredients back-of-pack. The ingredients group also suggests brands build transparency into the product to help consumers understand the production process.
In so doing, the consumer will be reassured about how the product is made, and that it’s as ‘natural as possible’, we were told.
Sustainability is another key motivator for buying into the category. However, just because a product is plant-based, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a sustainable product.
This is particularly the case in plant proteins, explained Juan Agruiriano, Head of Sustainability at Kerry. “It’s not a blanket statement: I eat plant protein, so it’s good. It needs to be segmented and the consumer is learning that, and the industry is getting there.”
Soy, for example, is a popular plant protein. But if it is coming from at-risk deforestation areas, it might be a positive in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, but a negative for the environment.
Rice is another, we were told. “But there are a lot of methane emissions associated with rice production.
“And if you buy almond milk in the US, 80% of the almonds come from California. To produce one litre of almond milk, you need 1,200L of water. There is no water in California. So is it sustainable? Maybe not…”
COVID has had an impact here: since the beginning of the pandemic, consumers have become increasingly interested in where their food comes.
According to plant-based expert Carroll, it’s all about ingredient provenance. “Where has the ingredient been sourced? Has it been sourced responsibly? If it’s soy, has it come from an area of deforestation?”
At the same time, environmental labelling is coming to the fore, which means consumers increasingly want to know how much water was used in the production of the product, and how much carbon was emitted, for example.
Challenges to plant adoption
Aside from ensuring the product is nutritious, tasty, and sustainable, another barrier to plant-based adoption lies in the enjoyment of eating.
Food is more than a functional item, explained Carroll. It’s emotional. “We eat for enjoyment; we eat for sociability.
“A lot of the products on the market now are challenged with making that emotional connection with the consumer. The consumer may choose it because it’s healthier, but not necessarily because it is delivering this ‘emotional experience’ for them.”
For Kerry, this means manufacturers should investigate novel formats – perhaps by taking inspiration from the world cuisines that are ‘exciting’ consumers. Brands need to transform a functional eating experience into an emotional one, Carroll stressed.
Additional research into consumer attitudes towards plant-burgers has revealed challenges remain in product texture. In an attempt to ‘drill down’ into the attributes of taste, Kerry discovered that texture is ‘really important’.
“Texture and taste are almost symbiotic,” explained Carroll. “If you’ve got a really good taste, but then a mushy texture and it doesn’t resemble meat, they don’t care about the taste…and they won’t go back to that product.”
But if a producer achieves the correct texture and taste, combined, you’ve got a ‘winning combination’.
For a plant-based burger, the product’s texture needs to be crispy on the outside, but then present ‘juicy succulence’ on the inside. “A lot of the burgers on the market at the moment are uniform. There is no variation in texture. And that doesn’t mimic the meant experience.”
Alternative protein from multiple sources
While Kerry strongly believes in future growth of the plant-based category, it is convinced alternative proteins will come from a variety of sources.
No matter the protein source, advances in technology and innovation are required, suggested CEO Edmond Scanlon.
“If convenience has been the biggest driver of innovation in the food industry over the last 50 years, alternative proteins will be the biggest driver of innovation over the next 50,” he told media at the event.
“There just isn’t enough protein to feed people. Demand for protein is growing. And wherever that protein is going to come from – be it plant-based, animal sources, or bioreactors (and I think it’s going to come from all those areas) – that’s going to require significant advancement of technology, and significant advancement in innovation.”